Thursday, November 7, 2019

Front Porch Books: November 2019 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of new and forthcoming booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released. I should also mention that, in nearly every case, I haven’t had a chance to read these books, but they’re definitely going in the to-be-read pile.

Barn 8
by Deb Olin Unferth
(Graywolf Press)

Jacket Copy:  Two auditors for the U.S. egg industry go rogue and conceive a plot to steal a million chickens in the middle of the night—an entire egg farm’s worth of animals. Janey and Cleveland—a spirited former runaway and the officious head of audits—assemble a precarious, quarrelsome team and descend on the farm on a dark spring evening. A series of catastrophes ensues. Deb Olin Unferth’s wildly inventive novel is a heist story of a very unusual sort. Swirling with a rich array of voices, Barn 8 takes readers into the minds of these renegades: a farmer’s daughter, a former director of undercover investigations, hundreds of activists, a forest ranger who suddenly comes upon forty thousand hens, and a security guard who is left on an empty farm for years. There are glimpses twenty thousand years into the future to see what chickens might evolve into on our contaminated planet. We hear what hens think happens when they die. In the end the cracked hearts of these indelible characters, their earnest efforts to heal themselves, and their radical actions will lead them to ruin or revelation. Funny, whimsical, philosophical, and heartbreaking, Barn 8 ultimately asks: What constitutes meaningful action in a world so in need of change? Unferth comes at this question with striking ingenuity, razor-sharp wit, and ferocious passion. Barn 8 is a rare comic-political drama, a tour de force for our time.

Opening Lines:  A nest. Built of 14-gauge galvanized wire mesh, twenty-five thousand water nipples, a moss of dander and feed. Six miles of feed trough runs down rows, up columns. Staggered tiers rise ten feet high into the shape of the letter A, the universal symbol for mountain. Wooden rafters, plywood walkways. Darkness. Sudden light. Three hundred thousand prehistoric eyes blinking. The entire apparatus ticking and whirring and clanking like a doomsday machine. Above it the purr, coo, and song of a hundred and fifty thousand birds at dawn.

Blurbworthiness:  “Like Flannery O’Connor, Deb Olin Unferth does things entirely her own way, and that way is impossible to describe....This very funny and absurd novel is also as serious as the world.” (Zachary Lazar, author of Vengeance)

Why It’s In My Stack:  I’ve been meaning to read Unferth for a number of years, so I recently added her 2011 memoir Revolution to my to-be-read pile. A few days later, an advance copy of Barn 8 arrived in the mail and I thought to myself “Egg-cellent timing!” And lord lord lord, that cover! If I don’t read it soon, I fear that bird will peck my eyes out.

by Crissy Van Meter
(Algonquin Books)

Jacket Copy:  On the eve of Evangeline’s wedding, a dead whale is trapped in the harbor of Winter Island, the groom may be lost at sea, and Evie’s mostly absent mother has shown up out of the blue. From there, in this mesmerizing, provocative debut, Evie remembers and reckons with her complicated upbringing in this lush, wild land off the coast of Southern California. Evie grew up with her well-meaning but negligent father, surviving on the money he made dealing the island’s world-famous strain of marijuana, Winter Wonderland. Although he raised her with a deep respect for the elements, the sea, and the creatures living within it, he also left her to parent herself. With wit, love, and bracing ashes of anger, Creatures probes the complexities of love and abandonment, guilt and forgiveness, betrayal and grief—and the ways in which our ability to love can be threatened if we are not brave enough to conquer the past. Lyrical, darkly funny, and ultimately cathartic, Creatures exerts a pull as strong as the tides.

Opening Lines:  There is a dead whale. It rolls idly in the warm shallows of this island, among cartoonish sea animals with tentacles, suction cups, and goopy eyes. There are squawking birds leaking nearly colorless shit, and we are concerned with an unbearable odor and the must-be sharks circling nearby.

Blurbworthiness:  “Creatures is the kind of beautiful book that makes you want to lick the salt from its pages. It’s so physically present you can feel the waves hit your body, smell the sea life, hear the roar of the ocean as your hair whips around your face in the breeze. Crissy Van Meter has written a book about the complexities of love and families, yes, but it’s also a careful look at intimacy through the lens of a person learning and relearning how to love the people who continually let us down. It’s inventive and surprising. The text is tactile; a punch to the heart. It’s one of the best novels I’ve read this year.”  (Kristen Arnett, author of Mostly Dead Things)

Why It’s In My Stack:  I’m a sucker for bloated whales and lean prose.

Everywhere You Don’t Belong
by Gabriel Bump
(Algonquin Books)

Jacket Copy:  In this powerful, edgy, and funny debut novel about making right and wrong choices, Gabriel Bump gives us an unforgettable and lovable protagonist, Claude McKay Love. Claude is a young black man in search of a place where he can fit; born on the South Side of Chicago, he is raised by his civil rights-era grandmother, who tries to shape him into a principled actor for change. After a riot consumes his neighborhood, Claude decides to escape Chicago for another place, to go to college, to find a new life and identity. But as he discovers, there’s no escaping the people and places that made him.

Opening Lines:  “If there’s one thing wrong with people,” Paul always said. “It’s that no one remembers the shit that they should and everyone remembers the shit that doesn’t matter for shit.”
       I remember Euclid Avenue. I remember yelling outside our window, coming in from the street. Grandma put down her coffee. I remember Grandma holding my ankle, swinging my two-year-old self out the front door, flipping me right-side up, plopping me down next to the Hawaiian violets, plopping herself down next to me. I remember awe and disbelief.
       Dad was on the curb, wrestling another man. He had the man’s head, the man’s life and soul, between his thighs.
       Upstairs, above our heads, Mom screamed for the men to stop, to regain their senses, civilize themselves.
       “You’re friends!” Mom yelled. “You go to church!”
       “Say it again,” Dad told the man.
       “I’m sorry,” the man told Dad.
       “Sorry for what?” Dad asked the man.
       “Sorry for saying you look like Booker T. Washington,” the man told Dad.
       Dad unsqueezed the man. Chicago Cops came speeding down our street before Dad’s loafer could unhinge the man’s teeth.

Blurbworthiness:  “In Everywhere You Don’t Belong, Gabriel Bump completely, beautifully, and energetically illuminates the heretofore unrecognized lines connecting Ellison’s Invisible Man to Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. This is a startling, original, and hilarious book.”  (Adam Levin, author of The Instructions)

Why It’s In My Stack:  This novel has been getting a lot of buzzwhich I started noticing after I got my advance copy, read those opening lines and couldn’t pull myself away from that image of one man’s shoe unhinging another man’s teeth. By that time, the novel already belonged to my TBR pile.

The Silent Treatment
by Abbie Greaves

Jacket Copy:  By all appearances, Frank and Maggie share a happy, loving marriage. But for the past six months, they have not spoken. Not a sentence, not a single word. Maggie isn’t sure what, exactly, provoked Frank’s silence, though she has a few ideas. Day after day, they have eaten meals together and slept in the same bed in an increasingly uncomfortable silence that has become, for Maggie, deafening. Then Frank finds Maggie collapsed in the kitchen, unconscious, an empty package of sleeping pills on the table. Rushed to the hospital, she is placed in a medically induced coma while the doctors assess the damage. If she regains consciousness, Maggie may never be the same. Though he is overwhelmed at the thought of losing his wife, will Frank be able to find his voice once again—and explain his withdrawal—or is it too late?

Opening Lines:  From above, Maggie looks to have everything under control. She deposits the tablets onto the dinner plate with her usual fastidious care. If anything, she moves through the motions of breaking the coated capsules free from the foil with even greater precision than usual, tipping the blister slowly so as to enjoy the sharp clanging sound that announces each one hitting the ceramic. Anything to break the silence.

Blurbworthiness:  “Not so much a case of ‘he said/she said’ as ‘he didn’t say/she didn’t say,’ this moving debut unpicks the secret selves of Maggie and Frank to reveal the tragic miscommunications of their broken family. It’s a pleasure to read such a stylish and confident new voice—readers are going to love discovering Abbie Greaves.”  (Louise Candlish, author of Our House )

Why It’s In My Stack:  I have been married to the same wonderful woman for thirty-six years. We love each other to the ends of the earth and beyond, but I’ll be the first to admit there have been times when angry, hurt silences stretched between us, as vast and impossible to cross as a dry desert.

Dad’s Maybe Book
by Tim O’Brien
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Jacket Copy:  In 2003, already an older father, National Book Award–winning novelist Tim O’Brien resolved to give his young sons what he wished his own father had given to him—a few scraps of paper signed “Love, Dad.” Maybe a word of advice. Maybe a sentence or two about some long-ago Christmas Eve. Maybe some scattered glimpses of their rapidly aging father, a man they might never really know. For the next fifteen years, the author talked to his sons on paper, as if they were adults, imagining what they might want to hear from a father who was no longer among the living. O’Brien traverses the great variety of human experience and emotion, moving from soccer games to warfare to risqué lullabies, from alcoholism to magic shows to history lessons to bittersweet bedtime stories, but always returning to a father’s soul-saving love for his sons. The result is Dad’s Maybe Book, a funny, tender, wise, and enduring literary achievement that will squeeze the reader’s heart with joy and recognition.

Opening Lines: Dear Timmy,
       A little more than a year ago, on June 20, 2003, you dropped into the world, my son, my first and only child—a surprise, a gift, an eater of electrical cords, a fertilizer factory, a pain in the ass, and a thrill in the heart.
       Here’s the truth, Timmy. Boy, oh, boy, do I love you. And, boy, do I wish I could spend the next fifty or sixty years with my lips to your cheek, my eyes warming in yours.

Blurbworthiness:  “A bountiful treasury of fatherly advice, memoir, literary criticism, history, political commentary, and a dash of magic and miracles…There are smiles and tears awaiting the reader on every page of this often emotionally charged book, and enough wisdom in it about what it means to be a parent, and a decent human being, to fuel many hours of personal recollection and reflection.” (BookReporter)

Why It’s In My Stack:  If you have to ask this, then you don’t know the depths of my love for Tim O’Brien. And if, based solely on those sweet and tender opening lines, you think this is a departure from the author’s celebrated Vietnam stories, then you need to turn directly to Chapter 3 where two-month-old Timmy cries non-stop through the night, leading O’Brien and his wife to desperately pop Xanax while trying to soothe the inconsolable infant back to sleep with a dirty-lyric rendition of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” The scene is as harrowing, funny and as wisely-told as anything to come out of O’Brien’s Vietnam War. I started reading Dad’s Maybe Book late last night, when I myself was having trouble sleeping; I stayed awake, with pleasure. This might just be the best thing I read this year.

Barker House
by David Moloney

Jacket Copy:  David Moloney’s Barker House follows the story of nine unforgettable New Hampshire correctional officers over the course of one year on the job. While veteran guards get by on what they consider survival strategies—including sadistic power-mongering and obsessive voyeurism—two rookies, including the only female officer on her shift, develop their own tactics for facing “the system.” Tracking their subtly intertwined lives, Barker House reveals the precarious world of the jailers, coming to a head when the unexpected death of one in their ranks brings them together. Timely and universal, this masterfully crafted debut adds a new layer to discussions of America’s criminal justice system, and introduces a brilliant young literary talent.

Opening Lines:  I work alone on the Restricted Unit in the Barker County Correctional Facility in New Hampshire. It’s a semi-circular room, the curved wall lined with nine cells. Most of the day, the inmates press their faces to scuffed windows, silent. There are no bars. The architects went with rosewood steel doors. Rosewood: the color of merlot.
       On Tuesday and Saturday mornings I supervise inmates while they shave in their cells. We don’t leave them alone with razors.

Blurbworthiness:  “At a time when mass incarceration is increasingly a feature of American life, David Moloney’s Barker House is a great and important book. Without romanticizing, demonizing, or candy-coating the work of his corrections officers, this novel-in-stories offers an experienced insider’s view of their lives, in stainless-steely prose that easily matches the best of Raymond Carver and John Fante.” (Tony Tulathimutte, author of Private Citizens)

Why It’s In My Stack:  While excellent shows like Orange is the New Black have helped shatter the stereotypes of grim-faced, robotic turnkeys, an in-depth literary treatment of prison guards is a rarity. The fact that Moloney himself worked as a correctional officer for many years lends an air of authenticity to his stories.

by Blake Gopnik

Jacket Copy:  To this day, mention the name “Andy Warhol” to almost anyone and you’ll hear about his famous images of soup cans and Marilyn Monroe. But though Pop Art became synonymous with Warhol’s name and dominated the public’s image of him, his life and work are infinitely more complex and multi-faceted than that. In Warhol, esteemed art critic Blake Gopnik takes on Andy Warhol in all his depth and dimensions. “The meanings of his art depend on the way he lived and who he was,” as Gopnik writes. “That’s why the details of his biography matter more than for almost any cultural figure,” from his working-class Pittsburgh upbringing as the child of immigrants to his early career in commercial art to his total immersion in the “performance” of being an artist, accompanied by global fame and stardom—and his attempted assassination. The extent and range of Warhol’s success, and his deliberate attempts to thwart his biographers, means that it hasn’t been easy to put together an accurate or complete image of him. But in this biography, unprecedented in its scope and detail as well as in its access to Warhol’s archives, Gopnik brings to life a figure who continues to fascinate because of his contradictions—he was known as sweet and caring to his loved ones but also a coldhearted manipulator; a deep-thinking avant-gardist but also a true lover of schlock and kitsch; a faithful churchgoer but also an eager sinner, skeptic, and cynic. Wide-ranging and immersive, Warhol gives us the most robust and intricate picture to date of a man and an artist who consistently defied easy categorization and whose life and work continue to profoundly affect our culture and society today.

Opening Lines:  Andy Warhol died, for the first time, at 4:51 P.M. on the third of June 1968. Or that was the grim verdict of the interns and residents in the emergency room of Columbus Hospital in New York. Some twenty minutes earlier, the artist had been shot by Valerie Solanas, a troubled hanger-on at his famous studio, the Factory, which had recently moved to a new spot on Union Square. During the half hour it took for the ambulance to arrive, Warhol slowly bled to death. By the time the patient was dropped at the hospital, a few blocks away, the young doctors in the E.R. couldn't find a pulse. There was no blood pressure to speak of. The patient's color was newsprint tinged with blue. By any normal measure, this thirty-nine-year old Caucasian, five foot eight, 145 pounds, was D.O.A.

Blurbworthiness:  “John Lennon and I once hid from Andy in a closet at the Sherry-Netherland hotel. I wish I’d known him better. This fantastic new biography makes me feel that I do. It really reveals the man—and the genius—under that silver wig.”  (Elton John, rock god and author of Me)

Why It’s In My Stack:  My familiarity with Andy Warhol stems from only three things: my reading of Edie by Jean Stein thirty-seven years ago, watching the motion picture I Shot Andy Warhol in 1996, and—yeah, yeah—the canvases of soup cans and Marilyn Monroe. I want to learn more about the enigmatic man and Gopnik’s biography looks like a good place to start.

Attention Servicemember
by Ben Brody
(Red Hook Editions)

Jacket Copy:  Shortlisted for the Aperture-Paris Photo First Book Award, Attention Servicemember is Ben Brody’s searing elegy to the experience of the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Brody was a soldier assigned to make visual propaganda during the Iraq War. After leaving the army, he traveled to Afghanistan as an independent civilian journalist. Returning to rural New England after 12 years at war, he found his home unrecognizable—even his own backyard radiated menace and threat. So he continued photographing the war as it exists in his own mind. Inspired by military field manuals, Attention Servicemember invites viewers through an evolving and often wickedly funny creative process—some pictures are intimate snapshots, some are slick jingoistic propaganda, others are meditative and subtle tableaus. Writing from an intensely personal perspective, he also offers an insiders’ view of the military, the media, and their contentious but symbiotic partnership. Anyone wondering how we wound up trusting serial liars and arguing about fake news should take a closer look at the cognitive disconnection in Baghdad and Kabul during the height of the wars. With a darkly engaging design treatment by Kummer & Herrman, Attention Servicemember is a powerful passport to that world.

Opening Lines:  In 2002, when Americans were expressing their newfound nationalistic fervor by supporting the invasion of Iraq, I resolved to photograph the brewing war. There was nothing for me to do in my hometown. The girl I’d been seeing had broken up with me again. We’d met at college, but I dropped out after a year to learn photography and sell cannabis to art students.
       I was 22 and thought the Iraq War would be a pivotal moment for my generation, as Vietnam was for my parents’ generation. I was skeptical, and assumed this war was as likely to achieve its objectives as Vietnam did. Almost all of my friends and family thought I was a fool for going. Because I had no money and had failed my only photojournalism class, I thought joining the Army as a combat photographer was the only way I could get to Iraq. I wanted to learn what my own country was all about, while also satisfying my naïve instincts about the steps a boy must take to become a self-determined adult. My Army recruiter didn’t believe the job of combat photographer existed. I told him I’d seen it in the catalog. Photographing the wars would be the next 15 years of my life.

Why It’s In My Stack:  Full disclosure: Ben Brody is a friend of mine. More than that, he is a fellow veteran with whom I had the pleasure of serving during the Iraq War. Ben and I deployed together with the 3rd Infantry Division in 2005 and I worked in the task-force headquarters public affairs office which oversaw Ben’s brigade public affairs shop. So, yes, I have a deep personal connection to this book. I have only skimmed the opening pages and while I’m very much looking forward to leafing through the rest of the photographs and textual interstices, I am also a little nervous about doing so because this reading experience will be like looking through a photo album of a particular time in my own life that I don’t often like to revisit, a reluctant trip down memory lane. This book is personal to me, as it will be for the soldiers Ben and I served with. But for everyone else, I urge you, in the strongest of terms, to buy this book for a look at the war you never saw from your living room. But be careful: these pages are bound to draw blood. Go here to see sample photos.

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